With secular voices being violently silenced, the Muslim world desperately needs its own Martin Luther

Until we start owning the text on the steps of the mosques and nailing our own 99 theses on the doors of those mosques, real reformation will not come

On 24 April, Omar Bataweel, a Yemeni teenager was abducted and shot in the head because of his open secularism and free-thinking posts on his Facebook page. Yemen, an Arab country in Western Asia currently in conflict is undergoing peace talks. Talks aimed at resolving the conflict in Yemen are scheduled to restart in Kuwait. The UN-brokered talks had been expected to start but were delayed when the Houthi rebels failed to appear, angry at what they said were ceasefire violations. Amidst this backdrop, a teenager who was just expressing his mind was murdered in cold blood because he saw things differently, read them differently, interpreted the world and his belief differently.

Kile Jones in his guest post on Quranalyze It - Why Atheists Caricature Islam: An Insider's Perspective observes:

"It should not be that hard to convince people that believe critical thinking, reason, and intelligence are supreme virtues to utilize them when discussing Islam, but it is."

So why is it hard to convince people to use critical thinking when discussing Islam? It's because of the fear, the taboo, the mystique, the near demigod status allotted to the Prophet and his Companions, the hands-off policy adopted when discussing the holy text and the accompanying hadiths, I could go on and on.

When a culture places a belief system above critical thinking, it automatically plays into the hands of the few power hungry, elite, generally male patrons who have seen how religion can be an industry and how people's minds can be closed to rationality and thinking simply by putting God's fear into them.

Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German language was a revolutionary moment in itself. It put the Bible directly into the hands of the common masses, without the filtered interpretation of the priests and bishops. While he was sequestered in the Wartburg Castle (1521–22) Luther began to translate the New Testament from Koine Greek into German in order to make it more accessible to all the people of the "Holy Roman Empire of the German nation." To help him in translating into contemporary German, Luther would make forays into nearby towns and markets to listen to people speaking. He wanted to ensure their comprehension by translating as closely as possible to their contemporary language usage. It coincided with another revolutionary technological advancement – the printing press, which made it possible to disseminate his ideas to many parts of Europe that were cultural and learning centres and thus began the Reformation.

Luther's German Bible and its widespread circulation facilitated the emergence of a standard, modern German language for the German-speaking peoples throughout the Holy Roman Empire. A large part of Luther's significance was his influence on the emergence of the German language and national identity. This stemmed predominantly from his translation of the Bible into the vernacular, which was potentially as revolutionary as canon law and the burning of the papal bull. Luther's goal was to equip every German-speaking Christian with the ability to hear the Word of God, and his completing his translation of the Old and New Testaments from Hebrew and Greek into the vernacular by 1534 was one of the most significant acts of the Reformation.

Luther sought to translate as closely to the original text as possible, but at the same time, his translation was guided by how people spoke in the home, on the street, and in the marketplace. Luther's faithfulness to the language spoken by the common people was to produce a work which they could relate to. This led German writers such as Goethe and Nietzsche to praise Luther's Bible. Moreover, the fact that the vernacular Bible was printed also enabled it to spread rapidly and be read by all. In a sense, the vernacular Bible also empowered and liberated all Protestants who had access to it. The existence of the translation was a public affirmation of reform, such as might deprive any elite or priestly class of exclusive control over words, as well as over the word of God.

All along the popularity of the German, vernacular, Lutheran Bible, we see the engagement of people on the validity, the literary significance, interpretations of the verses and in due course of time, the Reformation led to a culture of critical and rational thinking on issues related to religion and morality which eventually paved the way for secular democracies. But this is where the general pattern in the evolution of a civilisation stops in the Muslim world.

Instead of allowing debates, discussions or even criticism of the texts, it is considered blasphemous to even suggest that the text could have been erroneously interpreted when put down by scribes, despite increasing evidence that tampering has been done and that vested interests will always insert their own agendas into faith-based concepts. The result is that people who would generally have embraced the core message of peace and love and reform in Islam, are being put off by the extremist practice of it. Unless you wanted a demise of the religion as it had evolved over millennia, and modified and cohesively entrenched itself into the cultures and sub-cultures of its places of conquests and invasions, why else would you strictly adhere to the narrow-minded interpretations of it?

We need our Martin Luthers today. Not to translate the holy text and the hadith into yet another vernacular, venerated text, but in establishing a law, order and morality based on secular principles and moral consciousness. Luther's Bible also made a large impression on educational reform throughout Germany. Luther's goal of a readable, accurate translation of the Bible became a stimulus towards universal education since everyone should be able to read in order to understand the Bible. The Protestant states of Germany became educational states, which encouraged the spirit of teaching which was ultimately fueled by Luther's vernacular Bible.

This is the real independence, the real freedom. In my opinion, this would be a jihad of the mind – to free the message of Islam from the clutches of the mullahs and to put the interpretation and meaning into the hands of the common people and not the morality police of whichever school of thought is currently hip in the state or country.

I wish the slogans in the 90s Kashmir had not been:

'Yahaan kya chalega

I wish it had always been:

'Nahin chalegi nahin chalegi
 Mullahgardi nahin chalegi'

As I read Omar Bataweel's Facebook post in which he had written a couplet:

'They accuse me of atheism!
Oh you people, I see God in the flowers,
And you see Him in the graveyards,
That is the difference between me and you.'

It reminds me of the need for Reformation in Islam and how pertinent it is to reclaim the text and the traditions in every mosque of the world. Until people – men, women and children, transgenders, queer people, disabled and the marginalised – start owning the text on the steps of the mosques and nailing their own personal 99 theses on the doors of those mosques, real reformation will not come.

But then who will want to shed blood? Who wants to be abducted in broad daylight and shot in the head for a Facebook post?

Who indeed?  

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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